Brad Meltzer has made his name in pop culture writing thrillers about American politics. But he's still best known in comics for a DC event series that arrived nearly 15 years ago.
At its heart, Identity Crisis was a murder mystery that shook the Justice League to its core. But when it arrived in 2004, the turns of the plot proved some of the most controversial and consequential changes to DC's heroes in the modern era. It also proved a runaway best-seller in both comic shops and bookstores and gave birth to some of the firmament of what DC has been ever since. Meltzer's always kept a hand in comics, but his legacy will always begin with Identity Crisis.
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To mark 15 years since the book arrived on the scene, CBR and the writer unpack Identity Crisis' legacy as one of the first mainstream superhero crossover hits of the modern era. We asked Meltzer how he sees the books more controversial aspects in the here and now, and explore with the author the one genuinely meme-able phrase from the book.
CBR: While we were discussing your most recent non-fiction thriller, The First Conspiracy, you brought up how your comics career began with a run on Green Arrow, and it's been quite some time since you made your comics debut following Kevin Smith.
Yeah, they brought me in because Kevin had made that their #1 superhero book, and if they gave it to another comic book writer, everyone would go, "What happened to Kevin Smith?" But if they gave it to a novelist, they'd say, "What does DC know that I don't?" It was a total ploy to get people to read the book, and thanks to Kevin's kindness, I got a chance.
And at the same time, this year is marking 15 years since Identity Crisis.
I don't know how much time you spend reflecting on your own history, but considering that milestone, it's very strange to look at that book as a precursor to a lot of the ways superhero graphic novels are sold today. That's the first collection I have a memory of seeing the author's name on the top of the cover, as big as the title. It looked like one of your thrillers more so than an average DC book. What's your memory of the push to make this thing so different?
It's interesting. People always ask me how I make best-selling books. And what I say is that a bestseller is like catching lightning in a bottle – the only way it works is if everything happens at once. You have to have a good book – that goes without saying – but you also need a great cover and a great marketing plan. And you also need a publicity plan and getting the press to weigh in with good reviews. And then the sales team has to place the book at the front of the store. It's just everything needs to happen at exactly that moment. Wonderful books have been written that never get that chance.
For me, I remember that Green Arrow was this wonderful move by [then DC editor] Bob Shreck to bring in someone new. Comics weren't as cool as they are now. Kevin was a big get for them. I remember when back in the day, the screenwriter Sam Hamm did an arc for Detective Comics and it was like "Oh my God! A screenwriter is writing a comic!" But really no one outside of comics wrote for comics. Kevin said he wanted to do it, and then I was the next guy through the door because I love this world. I think Green Arrow, it worked for myself and DC realized that we could then do something even bigger.
My memory of Identity Crisis was that it felt like the launch of one of my novels. We all sat down, and we had this incredible publicity machine ready to help with David Hyde and Alex Segura back in the day. They were really pushing interviews with the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly and saying, "This is not just a monthly comic book. This is an event for us." And then the sales people like John Cunningham came in and said, "We want this in the front of the store like one of your novels. We want your fans coming in and looking for this book." It wasn't a comic book. It was a book. And to me, there was never any difference between those two things. But DC was consciously under Dan DiDio's leadership reaching for this bigger audience.
And I also remember that this was at a time where if you read [Diamond's distribution catalogue] Previews, everything was ruined. Everything in terms of spoilers was right there. You knew what the twist was. You knew who the surprise guest star was. All of it. And the comics I remember reading growing up were Marv Wolfman writing "The Judas Contract" where you had no idea Terra was a bad guy. When that moment happened, it blew your brain apart.
I remember saying to Dan at the time, "Let's get that back again. Let's show them nothing." In my novels, no one knew what was going to be in Chapter 12. You read it and get hit in the face. So I wanted to bring that back to comics, and Dan and the marketing people said, "We're not going to put info in Previews. We're not going to do the thing where we release copies a week early to retailers and let them spoil it for whoever wants to hear." The scripts were never handed out even internally at DC. They were kept under lock and key. God knows who kept them, but no one had them. The goal was to consciously make this feel like something that could bring the surprise back to comics. I wish I could take credit for it, but it was really everyone from Dan DiDio on down to Mike Carlin editing it, to the publicity and marketing people pulling together.